Archives For Epic v. Apple

In the hands of a wise philosopher-king, the Sherman Act’s hard-to-define prohibitions of “restraints of trade” and “monopolization” are tools that will operate inevitably to advance the public interest in competitive markets. In the hands of real-world litigators, regulators and judges, those same words can operate to advance competitors’ private interests in securing commercial advantages through litigation that could not be secured through competition in the marketplace. If successful, this strategy may yield outcomes that run counter to antitrust law’s very purpose.

The antitrust lawsuit filed by Epic Games against Apple in August 2020, and Apple’s antitrust lawsuit against Qualcomm (settled in April 2019), suggest that antitrust law is heading in this unfortunate direction.

From rent-minimization to rent-maximization

The first step in converting antitrust law from an instrument to minimize rents to an instrument to maximize rents lies in expanding the statute’s field of application on the apparently uncontroversial grounds of advancing the public interest in “vigorous” enforcement. In surprisingly short order, this largely unbounded vision of antitrust’s proper scope has become the dominant fashion in policy discussions, at least as expressed by some legislators, regulators, and commentators.

Following the new conventional wisdom, antitrust law has pursued over the past decades an overly narrow path, consequently overlooking and exacerbating a panoply of social ills that extend well beyond the mission to “merely” protect the operation of the market pricing mechanism. This line of argument is typically coupled with the assertion that courts, regulators and scholars have been led down this path by incumbents that welcome the relaxed scrutiny of a purportedly deferential antitrust policy.

This argument, and related theory of regulatory capture, has things roughly backwards.

Placing antitrust law at the service of a largely undefined range of social purposes set by judicial and regulatory fiat threatens to render antitrust a tool that can be easily deployed to favor the private interests of competitors rather than the public interest in competition. Without the intellectual discipline imposed by the consumer welfare standard (and, outside of per se illegal restraints, operationalized through the evidentiary requirement of competitive harm), the rhetoric of antitrust provides excellent cover for efforts to re-engineer the rules of the game in lieu of seeking to win the game as it has been played.

Epic Games v. Apple

A nascent symptom of this expansive form of antitrust is provided by the much-publicized lawsuit brought by Epic Games, the maker of the wildly popular video game, Fortnite, against Apple, the operator of the even more wildly popular App Store. On August 13, 2020, Epic added a “direct” payment processing services option to its Fortnite game, which violated the developer terms of use that govern the App Store. In response, Apple exercised its contractual right to remove Fortnite from the App Store, triggering Fortnite’s antitrust suit. The same sequence has ensued between Epic Games and Google in connection with the Google Play Store. Both litigations are best understood as a breach of contract dispute cloaked in the guise of an antitrust cause of action.

In suggesting that a jury trial would be appropriate in Epic Games’ suit against Apple, the district court judge reportedly stated that the case is “on the frontier of antitrust law” and [i]t is important enough to understand what real people think.” That statement seems to suggest that this is a close case under antitrust law. I respectfully disagree. Based on currently available information and applicable law, Epic’s argument suffers from two serious vulnerabilities that would seem to be difficult for the plaintiff to overcome.

A contestably narrow market definition

Epic states three related claims: (1) Apple has a monopoly in the relevant market, defined as the App Store, (2) Apple maintains its monopoly by contractually precluding developers from distributing iOS-compatible versions of their apps outside the App Store, and (3) Apple maintains a related monopoly in the payment processing services market for the App Store by contractually requiring developers to use Apple’s processing service.

This market definition, and the associated chain of reasoning, is subject to significant doubt, both as a legal and factual matter.

Epic’s narrow definition of the relevant market as the App Store (rather than app distribution platforms generally) conveniently results in a 100% market share for Apple. Inconveniently, federal case law is generally reluctant to adopt single-brand market definitions. While the Supreme Court recognized in 1992 a single-brand market in Eastman Kodak Co. v. Image Technical Services, the case is widely considered to be an outlier in light of subsequent case law. As a federal district court observed in Spahr v. Leegin Creative Leather Products (E.D. Tenn. 2008): “Courts have consistently refused to consider one brand to be a relevant market of its own when the brand competes with other potential substitutes.”

The App Store would seem to fall into this typical category. The customer base of existing and new Fortnite users can still accessthe gamethrough multiple platforms and on multiple devices other than the iPhone, including a PC, laptop, game console, and non-Apple mobile devices. (While Google has also removed Fortnite from the Google Play store due to the added direct payment feature, users can, at some inconvenience, access the game manually on Android phones.)

Given these alternative distribution channels, it is at a minimum unclear whether Epic is foreclosed from reaching a substantial portion of its consumer base, which may already access the game on alternative platforms or could potentially do so at moderate incremental transaction costs. In the language of platform economics, it appears to be technologically and economically feasible for the target consumer base to “multi-home.” If multi-homing and related switching costs are low, even a 100% share of the App Store submarket would not translate into market power in the broader and potentially more economically relevant market for app distribution generally.

An implausible theory of platform lock-in

Even if it were conceded that the App Store is the relevant market, Epic’s claim is not especially persuasive, both as an economic and a legal matter. That is because there is no evidence that Apple is exploiting any such hypothetically attributed market power to increase the rents extracted from developers and indirectly impose deadweight losses on consumers.

In the classic scenario of platform lock-in, a three-step sequence is observed: (1) a new firm acquires a high market share in a race for platform dominance, (2) the platform winner is protected by network effects and switching costs, and (3) the entrenched platform “exploits” consumers by inflating prices (or imposing other adverse terms) to capture monopoly rents. This economic model is reflected in the case law on lock-in claims, which typically requires that the plaintiff identify an adverse change by the defendant in pricing or other terms after users were allegedly locked-in.

The history of the App Store does not conform to this model. Apple has always assessed a 30% fee and the same is true of every other leading distributor of games for the mobile and PC market, including Google Play Store, App Store’s rival in the mobile market, and Steam, the dominant distributor of video games in the PC market. This long-standing market practice suggests that the 30% fee is most likely motivated by an efficiency-driven business motivation, rather than seeking to entrench a monopoly position that Apple did not enjoy when the practice was first adopted. That is: even if Apple is deemed to be a “monopolist” for Section 2 purposes, it is not taking any “illegitimate” actions that could constitute monopolization or attempted monopolization.

The logic of the 70/30 split

Uncovering the business logic behind the 70/30 split in the app distribution market is not too difficult.

The 30% fee appears to be a low transaction-cost practice that enables the distributor to fund a variety of services, including app development tools, marketing support, and security and privacy protections, all of which are supplied at no separately priced fee and therefore do not require service-by-service negotiation and renegotiation. The same rationale credibly applies to the integrated payment processing services that Apple supplies for purposes of in-app purchases.

These services deliver significant value and would otherwise be difficult to replicate cost-effectively, protect the App Store’s valuable stock of brand capital (which yields positive spillovers for app developers on the site), and lower the costs of joining and participating in the App Store. Additionally, the 30% fee cross-subsidizes the delivery of these services to the approximately 80% of apps on the App Store that are ad-based and for which no fee is assessed, which in turn lowers entry costs and expands the number and variety of product options for platform users. These would all seem to be attractive outcomes from a competition policy perspective.

Epic’s objection

Epic would object to this line of argument by observing that it only charges a 12% fee to distribute other developers’ games on its own Epic Games Store.

Yet Epic’s lower fee is reportedly conditioned, at least in some cases, on the developer offering the game exclusively on the Epic Games Store for a certain period of time. Moreover, the services provided on the Epic Games Store may not be comparable to the extensive suite of services provided on the App Store and other leading distributors that follow the 30% standard. Additionally, the user base a developer can expect to access through the Epic Games Store is in all likelihood substantially smaller than the audience that can be reached through the App Store and other leading app and game distributors, which is then reflected in the higher fees charged by those platforms.

Hence, even the large fee differential may simply reflect the higher services and larger audiences available on the App Store, Google Play Store and other leading platforms, as compared to the Epic Games Store, rather than the unilateral extraction of market rents at developers’ and consumers’ expense.

Antitrust is about efficiency, not distribution

Epic says the standard 70/30 split between game publishers and app distributors is “excessive” while others argue that it is historically outdated.

Neither of these are credible antitrust arguments. Renegotiating the division of economic surplus between game suppliers and distributors is not the concern of antitrust law, which (as properly defined) should only take an interest if either (i) Apple is colluding on the 30% fee with other app distributors, or (ii) Apple is taking steps that preclude entry into the apps distribution market and lack any legitimate business justification. No one claims evidence for the former possibility and, without further evidence, the latter possibility is not especially compelling given the uniform use of the 70/30 split across the industry (which, as noted, can be derived from a related set of credible efficiency justifications). It is even less compelling in the face of evidence that output is rapidly accelerating, not declining, in the gaming app market: in the first half of 2020, approximately 24,500 new games were added to the App Store.

If this conclusion is right, then Epic’s lawsuit against Apple does not seem to have much to do with the public interest in preserving market competition.

But it clearly has much to do with the business interest of an input supplier in minimizing its distribution costs and maximizing its profit margin. That category includes not only Epic Games but Tencent, the world’s largest video game publisher and the holder of a 40% equity stake in Epic. Tencent also owns Riot Games (the publisher of “League of Legends”), an 84% stake in Supercell (the publisher of “Clash of Clans”), and a 5% stake in Activision Blizzard (the publisher of “Call of Duty”). It is unclear how an antitrust claim that, if successful, would simply redistribute economic value from leading game distributors to leading game developers has any necessary relevance to antitrust’s objective to promote consumer welfare.

The prequel: Apple v. Qualcomm

Ironically (and, as Dirk Auer has similarly observed), there is a symmetry between Epic’s claims against Apple and the claims previously pursued by Apple (and, concurrently, the Federal Trade Commission) against Qualcomm.

In that litigation, Apple contested the terms of the licensing arrangements under which Qualcomm made available its wireless communications patents to Apple (more precisely, Foxconn, Apple’s contract manufacturer), arguing that the terms were incompatible with Qualcomm’s commitment to “fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory” (“FRAND”) licensing of its “standard-essential” patents (“SEPs”). Like Epic v. Apple, Apple v. Qualcomm was fundamentally a contract dispute, with the difference that Apple was in the position of a third-party beneficiary of the commitment that Qualcomm had made to the governing standard-setting organization. Like Epic, Apple sought to recharacterize this contractual dispute as an antitrust question, arguing that Qualcomm’s licensing practices constituted anticompetitive actions to “monopolize” the market for smartphone modem chipsets.

Theory meets evidence

The rhetoric used by Epic in its complaint echoes the rhetoric used by Apple in its briefs and other filings in the Qualcomm litigation. Apple (like the FTC) had argued that Qualcomm imposed a “tax” on competitors by requiring that any purchaser of Qualcomm’s chipsets concurrently enter into a license for Qualcomm’s SEP portfolio relating to 3G and 4G/LTE-enabled mobile communications devices.

Yet the history and performance of the mobile communications market simply did not track Apple’s (and the FTC’s continuing) characterization of Qualcomm’s licensing fee as a socially costly drag on market growth and, by implication, consumer welfare.

If this assertion had merit, then the decades-old wireless market should have exhibited a dismal history of increasing prices, slow user adoption and lagging innovation. In actuality, the wireless market since its inception has grown relentlessly, characterized by declining quality-adjusted prices, expanding output, relentless innovation, and rapid adoption across a broad range of income segments.

Given this compelling real-world evidence, the only remaining line of argument (still being pursued by the FTC) that could justify antitrust intervention is a theoretical conjecture that the wireless market might have grown even faster under some alternative IP licensing arrangement. This assertion rests precariously on the speculative assumption that any such arrangement would have induced the same or higher level of aggregate investment in innovation and commercialization activities. That fragile chain of “what if” arguments hardly seems a sound basis on which to rewrite the legal infrastructure behind the billions of dollars of licensing transactions that support the economically thriving smartphone market and the even larger ecosystem that has grown around it.

Antitrust litigation as business strategy

Given the absence of compelling evidence of competitive harm from Qualcomm’s allegedly anticompetitive licensing practices, Apple’s litigation would seem to be best interpreted as an economically rational attempt by a downstream producer to renegotiate a downward adjustment in the fees paid to an upstream supplier of critical technology inputs. (In fact, those are precisely the terms on which Qualcomm in 2015 settled the antitrust action brought against it by China’s competition regulator, to the obvious benefit of local device producers.) The Epic Games litigation is a mirror image fact pattern in which an upstream supplier of content inputs seeks to deploy antitrust law strategically for the purposes of minimizing the fees it pays to a leading downstream distributor.

Both litigations suffer from the same flaw. Private interests concerning the division of an existing economic value stream—a business question that is matter of indifference from an efficiency perspective—are erroneously (or, at least, reflexively) conflated with the public interest in preserving the free play of competitive forces that maximizes the size of the economic value stream.

Conclusion: Remaking the case for “narrow” antitrust

The Epic v. Apple and Apple v. Qualcomm disputes illustrate the unproductive rent-seeking outcomes to which antitrust law will inevitably be led if, as is being widely advocated, it is decoupled from its well-established foundation in promoting consumer welfare—and not competitor welfare.

Some proponents of a more expansive approach to antitrust enforcement are convinced that expanding the law’s scope of application will improve market efficiency by providing greater latitude for expert regulators and courts to reengineer market structures to the public benefit. Yet any substitution of top-down expert wisdom for the bottom-up trial-and-error process of market competition can easily yield “false positives” in which courts and regulators take actions that counterproductively intervene in markets that are already operating under reasonably competitive conditions. Additionally, an overly expansive approach toward the scope of antitrust law will induce private firms to shift resources toward securing advantages over competitors through lobbying and litigation, rather than seeking to win the race to deliver lower-cost and higher-quality products and services. Neither outcome promotes the public’s interest in a competitive marketplace.

Apple’s legal team will be relieved that “you reap what you sow” is just a proverb. After a long-running antitrust battle against Qualcomm unsurprisingly ended in failure, Apple now faces antitrust accusations of its own (most notably from Epic Games). Somewhat paradoxically, this turn of events might cause Apple to see its previous defeat in a new light. Indeed, the well-established antitrust principles that scuppered Apple’s challenge against Qualcomm will now be the rock upon which it builds its legal defense.

But while Apple’s reversal of fortunes might seem anecdotal, it neatly illustrates a fundamental – and often overlooked – principle of antitrust policy: Antitrust law is about maximizing consumer welfare. Accordingly, the allocation of surplus between two companies is only incidentally relevant to antitrust proceedings, and it certainly is not a goal in and of itself. In other words, antitrust law is not about protecting David from Goliath.

Jockeying over the distribution of surplus

Or at least that is the theory. In practice, however, most antitrust cases are but small parts of much wider battles where corporations use courts and regulators in order to jockey for market position and/or tilt the distribution of surplus in their favor. The Microsoft competition suits brought by the DOJ and the European commission (in the EU and US) partly originated from complaints, and lobbying, by Sun Microsystems, Novell, and Netscape. Likewise, the European Commission’s case against Google was prompted by accusations from Microsoft and Oracle, among others. The European Intel case was initiated following a complaint by AMD. The list goes on.

The last couple of years have witnessed a proliferation of antitrust suits that are emblematic of this type of power tussle. For instance, Apple has been notoriously industrious in using the court system to lower the royalties that it pays to Qualcomm for LTE chips. One of the focal points of Apple’s discontent was Qualcomm’s policy of basing royalties on the end-price of devices (Qualcomm charged iPhone manufacturers a 5% royalty rate on their handset sales – and Apple received further rebates):

“The whole idea of a percentage of the cost of the phone didn’t make sense to us,” [Apple COO Jeff Williams] said. “It struck at our very core of fairness. At the time we were making something really really different.”

This pricing dispute not only gave rise to high-profile court cases, it also led Apple to lobby Standard Developing Organizations (“SDOs”) in a partly successful attempt to make them amend their patent policies, so as to prevent this type of pricing. 

However, in a highly ironic turn of events, Apple now finds itself on the receiving end of strikingly similar allegations. At issue is the 30% commission that Apple charges for in app purchases on the iPhone and iPad. These “high” commissions led several companies to lodge complaints with competition authorities (Spotify and Facebook, in the EU) and file antitrust suits against Apple (Epic Games, in the US).

Of course, these complaints are couched in more sophisticated, and antitrust-relevant, reasoning. But that doesn’t alter the fact that these disputes are ultimately driven by firms trying to tilt the allocation of surplus in their favor (for a more detailed explanation, see Apple and Qualcomm).

Pushback from courts: The Qualcomm case

Against this backdrop, a string of recent cases sends a clear message to would-be plaintiffs: antitrust courts will not be drawn into rent allocation disputes that have no bearing on consumer welfare. 

The best example of this judicial trend is Qualcomm’s victory before the United States Court of Appeal for the 9th Circuit. The case centered on the royalties that Qualcomm charged to OEMs for its Standard Essential Patents (SEPs). Both the district court and the FTC found that Qualcomm had deployed a series of tactics (rebates, refusals to deal, etc) that enabled it to circumvent its FRAND pledges. 

However, the Court of Appeal was not convinced. It failed to find any consumer harm, or recognizable antitrust infringement. Instead, it held that the dispute at hand was essentially a matter of contract law:

To the extent Qualcomm has breached any of its FRAND commitments, a conclusion we need not and do not reach, the remedy for such a breach lies in contract and patent law. 

This is not surprising. From the outset, numerous critics pointed that the case lied well beyond the narrow confines of antitrust law. The scathing dissenting statement written by Commissioner Maureen Olhaussen is revealing:

[I]n the Commission’s 2-1 decision to sue Qualcomm, I face an extraordinary situation: an enforcement action based on a flawed legal theory (including a standalone Section 5 count) that lacks economic and evidentiary support, that was brought on the eve of a new presidential administration, and that, by its mere issuance, will undermine U.S. intellectual property rights in Asia and worldwide. These extreme circumstances compel me to voice my objections. 

In reaching its conclusion, the Court notably rejected the notion that SEP royalties should be systematically based upon the “Smallest Saleable Patent Practicing Unit” (or SSPPU):

Even if we accept that the modem chip in a cellphone is the cellphone’s SSPPU, the district court’s analysis is still fundamentally flawed. No court has held that the SSPPU concept is a per se rule for “reasonable royalty” calculations; instead, the concept is used as a tool in jury cases to minimize potential jury confusion when the jury is weighing complex expert testimony about patent damages.

Similarly, it saw no objection to Qualcomm licensing its technology at the OEM level (rather than the component level):

Qualcomm’s rationale for “switching” to OEM-level licensing was not “to sacrifice short-term benefits in order to obtain higher profits in the long run from the exclusion of competition,” the second element of the Aspen Skiing exception. Aerotec Int’l, 836 F.3d at 1184 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Instead, Qualcomm responded to the change in patent-exhaustion law by choosing the path that was “far more lucrative,” both in the short term and the long term, regardless of any impacts on competition. 

Finally, the Court concluded that a firm breaching its FRAND pledges did not automatically amount to anticompetitive conduct: 

We decline to adopt a theory of antitrust liability that would presume anticompetitive conduct any time a company could not prove that the “fair value” of its SEP portfolios corresponds to the prices the market appears willing to pay for those SEPs in the form of licensing royalty rates.

Taken together, these findings paint a very clear picture. The Qualcomm Court repeatedly rejected the radical idea that US antitrust law should concern itself with the prices charged by monopolists — as opposed to practices that allow firms to illegally acquire or maintain a monopoly position. The words of Learned Hand and those of Antonin Scalia (respectively, below) loom large:

The successful competitor, having been urged to compete, must not be turned upon when he wins. 

And,

To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.

Other courts (both in the US and abroad) have reached similar conclusions

For instance, a district court in Texas dismissed a suit brought by Continental Automotive Systems (which supplies electronic systems to the automotive industry) against a group of SEP holders. 

Continental challenged the patent holders’ decision to license their technology at the vehicle rather than component level (the allegation is very similar to the FTC’s complaint that Qualcomm licensed its SEPs at the OEM, rather than chipset level). However, following a forceful intervention by the DOJ, the Court ultimately held that the facts alleged by Continental were not indicative of antitrust injury. It thus dismissed the case.

Likewise, within weeks of the Qualcomm and Continental decisions, the UK Supreme court also ruled in favor of SEP holders. In its Unwired Planet ruling, the Court concluded that discriminatory licenses did not automatically infringe competition law (even though they might breach a firm’s contractual obligations):

[I]t cannot be said that there is any general presumption that differential pricing for licensees is problematic in terms of the public or private interests at stake.

In reaching this conclusion, the UK Supreme Court emphasized that the determination of whether licenses were FRAND, or not, was first and foremost a matter of contract law. In the case at hand, the most important guide to making this determination were the internal rules of the relevant SDO (as opposed to competition case law):

Since price discrimination is the norm as a matter of licensing practice and may promote objectives which the ETSI regime is intended to promote (such as innovation and consumer welfare), it would have required far clearer language in the ETSI FRAND undertaking to indicate an intention to impose the more strict, “hard-edged” non-discrimination obligation for which Huawei contends. Further, in view of the prevalence of competition laws in the major economies around the world, it is to be expected that any anti-competitive effects from differential pricing would be most appropriately addressed by those laws

All of this ultimately led the Court to rule in favor of Unwired Planet, thus dismissing Huawei’s claims that it had infringed competition law by breaching its FRAND pledges. 

In short, courts and antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have repeatedly, and unambiguously, concluded that pricing disputes (albeit in the specific context of technological standards) are generally a matter of contract law. Antitrust/competition law intercedes only when unfair/excessive/discriminatory prices are both caused by anticompetitive behavior and result in anticompetitive injury.

Apple’s Loss is… Apple’s gain.

Readers might wonder how the above cases relate to Apple’s app store. But, on closer inspection the parallels are numerous. As explained above, courts have repeatedly stressed that antitrust enforcement should not concern itself with the allocation of surplus between commercial partners. Yet that is precisely what Epic Game’s suit against Apple is all about.

Indeed, Epic’s central claim is not that it is somehow foreclosed from Apple’s App Store (for example, because Apple might have agreed to exclusively distribute the games of one of Epic’s rivals). Instead, all of its objections are down to the fact that it would like to access Apple’s store under more favorable terms:

Apple’s conduct denies developers the choice of how best to distribute their apps. Developers are barred from reaching over one billion iOS users unless they go through Apple’s App Store, and on Apple’s terms. […]

Thus, developers are dependent on Apple’s noblesse oblige, as Apple may deny access to the App Store, change the terms of access, or alter the tax it imposes on developers, all in its sole discretion and on the commercially devastating threat of the developer losing access to the entire iOS userbase. […]

By imposing its 30% tax, Apple necessarily forces developers to suffer lower profits, reduce the quantity or quality of their apps, raise prices to consumers, or some combination of the three.

And the parallels with the Qualcomm litigation do not stop there. Epic is effectively asking courts to make Apple monetize its platform at a different level than the one that it chose to maximize its profits (no more monetization at the app store level). Similarly, Epic Games omits any suggestion of profit sacrifice on the part of Apple — even though it is a critical element of most unilateral conduct theories of harm. Finally, Epic is challenging conduct that is both the industry norm and emerged in a highly competitive setting.

In short, all of Epic’s allegations are about monopoly prices, not monopoly maintenance or monopolization. Accordingly, just as the SEP cases discussed above were plainly beyond the outer bounds of antitrust enforcement (something that the DOJ repeatedly stressed with regard to the Qualcomm case), so too is the current wave of antitrust litigation against Apple. When all is said and done, Apple might thus be relieved that Qualcomm was victorious in their antitrust confrontation. Indeed, the legal principles that caused its demise against Qualcomm are precisely the ones that will, likely, enable it to prevail against Epic Games.